Rank and File or Broad Left? (Review)

Submitted by martinh on March 8, 2006

I feel old, I really do. In February 1986 I quit my job at the start of what turned out to be nine months on the dole, and walked straight onto a picket line. The "Laing's Lockout Committee" dispute remains one of the most significant of the post-Miners' Strike era, full of lessons about the possibility of resistance in the face of the most difficult of conditions and determined of opposition. It is at the centre of this excellent pamphlet. Congratulations to the Colin Roach Centre for publishing this.

The dispute taught me a lot, especially about the power of picketting where there is a history of union organisation, and a memory of solidarity, even though actual organisation has died. In the short term it can galvanise people who've been inactive for years and inspire those with no previous experience of union militancy. In the medium term they need workplace organisation to support them, in the context of wider class consciousness and organisation.

I also learned the need for guerilla tactics, stretching the bosses and their agents - union officials, the courts, police, etc. This spreads the dispute in the face of media blackouts - PR is not an option for workers who fight to win - and gives you a chance. If you stay in the same place, sooner or later pressure to cross picket lines is going to bite. The Old Bill also made up a law that only six pickets were allowed at each gate, derived from TUC/ACAS guidelines, and enforced it through the catch-all "obstructing a police officer" charge.

This is not just about the last of the Rank and File groups initiated by the then International Socialists (now SWP) in the 70's. It analyses of the realities of site and union organisation in construction. As well as being one of the most dangerous industries, where "health & safety" is non-existent unless enforced by militant organisation, this is where the bosses' preference for bogus "self-employment" began and is most blatant. All the rights belong to the boss, all the responsibilities - tax, National Insurance, holiday pay, health & safety - to the "self-employed" worker. The art of making industrial action "secondary", and therefore illegal, has also been perfected here by the use of labour-only sub-contractors, many of them gangsters.

Higgins sets out the need for "United Front Rank and File Organisation" to bring together "revolutionary ... and reformist workers ... by far the majority" around immediate demands, workplace organisation, and a longer term strategy. These are all-industry organisations, with no divisions by political or union affiliation or lack of either. The R&F group "should be the bridge between more popular economic and democratic site issues and the more difficult" political ones.

This is remarkably close to the Industrial Networks which form part of the Solidarity Federation, and is a big improvement on the standard "join the union, then form a rank and file group within it to oppose the officials" line of the left (when they're not cheerleading for those traitors, that is). However, I believe the majority of workers are not actively reformist, but apolitical, and to address ourselves to reformism (ie the left, Blair will reform nothing) is to give it room to manouevre. Where anarcho-syndicalists differ from this approach is not to separate the political from the economic by assuming the need to tone down politics in order to form a "united front" with reformists.

He goes on to outline the origins of the BWG and its split with the SWP in 1981/82 having developed a life of its own and outgrown the SWP's politics. As a former member of both the BWG and the anarcho-syndicalist Direct Action Movement once put it, "without subordination to a strong working class organisation, the middle classes are only capable of achieving party consciousness".

As well as the Laing's story, the violence inflicted on union militants by gangster subbies and the state is highlighted, as is the corruption and collaboration of the unions, particularly UCATT - names are named. The pamphlet also covers the decline of the Construction Safety Campaign into a "credibility" device for corrupt union official Tony O'Brien and his cheerleaders in the Workers' Revolutionary Party and SWP, as well as our old friends the Stalinists. Critiques of both the Joint Sites organisation in 1992, and the Offshore Industry Liaison Committee - unofficial union organisations - round off the pamphlet. Buy it, read it, learn the lessons in it.

Peter Principle
(Taken from BF#208)
Produced and Published by the Colin Roach Centre/Resistance £1.50. Available from 2 Bitten Court, Lumbertubs, Northampton